By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: Getting serious about federal hiring reform

During some conversations and meetings in a recent trip to Washington, I became convinced the administration is actually serious about some hiring reforms that, frankly, are classic examples of "low-hanging fruit" and should have happened long ago.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, has been saying good things. But I hadn't known that Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, in a memo to cabinet secretaries, actually listed hiring reform as one of four issues for agencies to work on in the run-up to the fiscal 2011 budget process (my fault -- this memo actually came out a month ago).

Agencies have now been directed by OMB to take their top 10 occupations and put job descriptions into plain English within the next six months. Hopefully no more announcements whose first words are "Incumbent will…" No more fed-speak inaccessible to outsiders.

That this hasn't happened long ago is amazing. If agencies can't do this, how can they do more fundamental changes in federal jobs and civil service rules? Is it too much to hope that more agencies will follow the lead of organizations such as the CIA in actually trying to make their jobs sound interesting, and connect them to patriotism and public service? Is it too much to ask that the government start using a normal phrase such as "job opening" rather than the bizarre fed-speak "vacancy announcement," as if federal employees are merely ciphers filling empty slots?

A sign of the change came, actually, in yesterday's Washington Post, which featured a fullpage ad by the National Nuclear Security Administration touting job openings for engineers and others, emphasizing the agency's mission to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and avert nuclear holocaust. The ad won't win an advertising prize -- it was, typical for the system, too text-laden and busy. But it was certainly a real step forward.

The OMB memo also requested other important steps. One, responding to the frustration of job applicants who see their applications disappear into a black hole, requires agencies to do what all good large companies and consulting firms do -- keep applicants informed by e-mail of the status of their applications (agencies are supposed to inform applicants when applications are received, qualifications assessed, applications referred to a hiring official, and the selection decision made.)

Also, demanding a bigger cultural change, is the idea of getting hiring managers more involved in the hiring process. This, of course, often happens already, but it is a shocking commentary on the bureaucratic nature of the hiring process -- which is often more oriented towards complying with regulations (the specialty of the HR people or "personnelists") rather than getting the right talent on the job -- that HR has often played a larger role in hiring than the managers for whom the employee will actually be working.

As I understand it, though it's not in the Orszag memo, the government will be starting to accept resumes rather than the ponderous government job applications, which are oriented towards the bureaucratic KSA ("knowledge, skills, abilities") system that turns federal hiring into box ticking rather than judgments about people's fit and motivation.

As best as I can tell, the push for hiring reform ties in with the push to insource more government work. The administration realizes that one important reason jobs are inappropriately outsourced involves problems in the federal hiring process. So this provides an urgency for reform.

Federal employee unions, of course, want more insourcing, but they generally support most of the worst features of federal hiring and civil service policies. This provides a window of opportunity for the administration to gain support, or at least acquiescence, for more-serious hiring and civil service reforms. (One very small example will be to see if the unions accept the move to resumes.) Which will the unions want more, a reduction of inappropriate outsourcing or a continuation of bureaucratic hiring and civil service practices that make civil servants uncompetitive with contractor personnel?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 10, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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